There are two intensities of North European paganism that set it apart from other beliefs: a multiplicity of creatures, and a belief in doom, destiny, or fate that is powerful but not absolute. Unexpectedly, if we jostle them around a bit, the Creatures and Fate don’t fully resolve into a single aspect, but they come darn close.
When we moved from Gethsemane Lutheran to Bethany Covenant in the mid-80’s we moved from one historically Swedish church to another. As I did not grow up with Saint Lucia Day and was at that time very worried about occult or sub-Christian influences in the church, I found Luciadag disquieting. Starboys, sheaves of wheat to placate little mischievous tomten, the whole Winter Solstice connection (Dec 13 was the shortest day of the year under the old calendar) – those seemed possibly okay for home fun or ethnic celebrations, but having them in the sanctuary irritated me. Lucia seemed to be some Sicilian saint Swedes had attempted to insert into their regular winter celebration in order to give it a Christian wash.
And in fact, that’s pretty much the case. The demoness Lussiferda – no, really – roamed the countryside on the longest night of the year stealing souls, a version of the Wild Hunt myths (Huntsmen of Annwn, Woden’s Hunt); the little tomten lived in the burial mound before he was moved to the barn.
But it’s cute, cute, cute. Girls in white robes, apple-cheeked preschoolers dancing in costumes. And like many other ethnic celebrations in America, tomten, the dangerous imaginary creatures – like leprechauns, sprites, kobolds, hobs, elves, and gnomes – are made harmless and comic. We associate Norse mythology and paganism with creatures, a far greater variety of soul-stealers and house-gods than is found elsewhere. To the list above add dwarves, trolls, brownies, and a dozen lesser-known varieties. And they displayed a remarkable persistence in Europe, with serious belief in them recorded well into the 19th C. Such creatures did not cross the ocean well. Headless horsemen and ghost riders make their appearance in America, but only as intentional legends, not preserved belief. They were often place-spirits, inhabiting a well, a barn, a mountain – those are hard for the imagination to transport, though some version of the idea may remain.
Though we have the stories of Saints Patrick, Augustine, and Ansgar bringing the gospel to the tribes of northern Europe well before the year 1000, this does not mean that by the 11th C most people were Christian in the exclusive sense we would consider today. First, many places were bypassed in the preaching – Lithuania did not become even nominally Christian until the late 14th C. Second, we all can hold incompatible ideas for generations (we still do, but that’s another post), and remoter areas held considerable paganism alongside the enforced Christianity of their rulers. If you were to visit a rural parish priest in Germany or Cornwall or Norway in 1500, you would get an earful of local pagan practices.
This is one of my main adjustments in thinking over the last ten years, appreciating how deeply pagan (somewhat different than occult) Europe remained well into the modern era, in spite of the Christian cathedrals, artists, philosophers, and writers it produced. Greece and Italy had civilization, literacy, and law centuries before they had Christianity, and Christianity centuries before northern Europe. Tourist books of the Orkneys or Ireland record with amusement marriage or burial customs that persist from ages long forgotten. The old beliefs died hard .
A side note on belief before I move on to the discussion of Doom. Do not hold any association of Peter Pan asking “Do you believe in faeries?” or of amusing Grampas asking all the children to gather round and sit on his lap while he tells them a tale o’ the wee folk, or moderns who think there may be ghosts somewhere. When I refer to belief extending into the 19th C, I mean the utter seriousness of believing that the depressed, inert daughter upstairs had her soul stolen by the huntsmen because of some incaution on her part. Not the automatic and mild superstition of throwing a small offering in a well, but a certainty that fell creatures not fully banished by the Christian God resentfully take a life here and there when they can get it because people no longer pay them worship. They believed in nature-spirits who took the shapes of these creatures. We see the last, degraded, quaint forms of these beliefs, but they were never interrupted.